Stockholm peace talks: A ‘first step’ towards ending Yemen war?
ABU DHABI - After much speculation as to whether peace talks between Yemen’s warring parties would take place, US Defence Secretary James Mattis confirmed that UN-led negotiations were slated for early December in Stockholm, Sweden.
“It looks like very, very early in December, up in Sweden we’ll see both the Houthi rebel side and the UN-recognised government,” Mattis told reporters on November 21.
Mattis’s announcement came amid growing regional and international efforts to bring an end to the more than three-year conflict, which has pitted pro-government forces backed by an Arab coalition of nine countries against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who helped oust Yemen’s democratically elected president in 2015.
The Arab coalition soon intervened in Yemen, lending support to government forces battling the Houthis. Three years later, the Houthis rule most of Yemen’s population, while the government in exile controls a section of the country in the south.
Now, however, there appears to be renewed hope for a settlement, with Yemen’s warring parties giving UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths “firm assurances” they are committed to working towards peace, he said on November 16.
Commenting on the improved prospects for peace, Mattis on November 21 said Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had halted their offensive near Yemen’s key port city of Hodeidah and “that despite some fighting, the front lines had not changed in at least 72 hours,” Reuters reported.
During the lull in violence, the UN envoy travelled to the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, before visiting Hodeidah a day later, on November 22.
During the trip, he sought “to finalise the arrangements in the lead-up to the talks in Sweden and to revisit a UN supervisory role for the port and to draw attention to the continued need for a pause in the fighting,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The United States has expressed support for Griffiths’ biggest push in two years to end the war, insisting that “the time for direct talks… is now.”
“All parties must not delay talks any longer, or insist on travel or transport conditions that call into question good faith intentions,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem eager to exit what is being seen as an increasingly costly conflict, they continue to harbour deep mistrust towards the Houthis, which have turned their back on two previous peace talks.
Last September, the Houthis failed to show up to a final round of negotiations after coalition forces abandoned an offensive on Hodeidah to pursue peace talks.
The Saudi-led coalition has since argued that wresting control of Hodeidah is the best way to deal with the Houthis, as it would cut off their main supply line and force them to adopt a softer stance in negotiations.
UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan realistically described the negotiations in Sweden as “a first step on a long and as yet unforeseen path.”
“Stockholm talks may not be the last round of negotiations,” he warned, “but we hope it would be a basis for more serious talks from the Houthis.”
The conflict in Yemen has been in a stalemate since the Saudi-led coalition seized the southern port city of Aden in 2015. While the coalition is superior by air, the Houthis, emboldened by support from their Iranian backers, have effectively used guerrilla warfare tactics to make gains.
Now, however, the Houthis are faced with a tough choice: withdraw from Hodeidah or fight a battle that could have dire humanitarian consequences.
“They [the Houthis] have a clear choice between agreeing to a negotiated exit from the port and joining a battle that would prove devastating to millions of people in territories currently under their control,” states a November 21 report by the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organisation that monitors conflicts throughout the world.
After more than three years of fighting, Yemen’s economy is in crisis and three-quarters of its population, 22 million people, are in need of aid. Some 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation, a number the United Nations warns will likely rise to 14 million.
David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, who travelled to Hodeidah on November 11, told reporters that the United Nations was “prepared, if necessary, if all parties desire” to take over the operational capacity of the Hodeidah port, which handles 70% of the country’s food imports and aid supplies.
“We need to protect this port at all costs to function at the highest capacity because if we don’t then people are going to die,” he said.